's life in music began with a crush. When she was 13 years old, a boy in her tiny hometown of Tonila, in central Mexico, attempted to win her affections by giving her a guitar. Growing up in the birthplace of mariachi, Vazquez says she spent her childhood "showered in culture," but up to that point, she'd never thought of participating in the arts herself.
Things didn't work out between her and the boy—even then, Vazquez, who is openly gay, sensed she'd prefer to eventually have a wife instead of a husband—but she kept his gift, and started taking lessons at a local church. She found herself to be a quick learner. "It was like something woke up in me," says Vazquez, 34. And when she decided to learn to sing one of her grandmother's favorite songs, she discovered something else: She had a naturally strong voice. "And I'm like, 'Fuck!'" she says. "'I can do whatever the heck I want!'"
Indeed, Vazquez, who left Mexico for the United States as a teenager and wound up in the Portland area soon after, has been doing pretty much whatever the heck she wants ever since. Fidgeting in her chair at Boulevard Tacos, Vazquez is nonchalant about the fact that much of her life has been defined by acts of hard-nosed defiance. But the empowerment she gained from music instilled in her a streak of gutsy independence. Over the years, that sense of self-determination has manifested in different ways—from her decision to come out in a deeply religious community to her move to integrate into Portland's music scene playing original, soul-baring Mexican folk songs.
It'd seem that, after 34 years of boldly declaring her identity, Vazquez would have a clear idea of who she is as a person and an artist. But one of the things that compels her as a performer, she says, is that she's still trying to suss that out.
"[Music] is, like, a metaphysical way of figuring out who we are," Vazquez says.
In terms of her sexual identity, Vazquez has long been certain. At 17, she announced to her parents that she'd fallen in love with her best friend. Fearing for her well-being, they sent Vazquez to live with relatives in East Los Angeles. Four months after arriving in America, Vazquez moved, along with her aunt and uncle, to Hillsboro, where her feelings of alienation doubled: Not only was she a lesbian, she was now one of only four Latino students in her high school. It was, she confesses, a lonely time. "I guess I spent it by myself," she says.
After graduating, Vazquez joined Salem-based Mariachi Los Palmeros, with which she's performed practically every weekend for the past 12 years. Nine years ago, Vazquez began composing her own songs, sneaking them into her solo repertoire. Then, in 2010, while living in Vancouver, Wash., she appeared on Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento, a popular talent competition on Spanish-language television. Playing a traditional song from her mother's home region of Huasteca, her lugubrious alto nearly drove the three celebrity judges to tears. Although she was eliminated from the program in the semifinals, the performance made Vazquez a minor TV star, earning her invitations to other shows and allowing her to tour Texas with her own quartet.
It also had an impact locally: Thanks in large part to the support of Y La Bamba's Luz Elena Mendoza, who came across a clip of her Tengo Talento appearance on YouTube, in the last year Vazquez has gone from playing Mexican restaurants and quinceaÃ±eras to high-profile events like PDX Pop Now! While that might seem odd—a mariachi singer sharing bills with Portland indie rockers—Vazquez says her music, which borrows from a range of Latin American styles, is regarded with equal curiosity in the Latino community. She's been told she should stick to one genre (she also has a rock band, called No Passengers). As you might imagine, though, Vazquez doesn't do well with restrictions.
"I'm just exploring myself," she says. "Maybe I'm not going to be a famous artist, like, to be commercialized and all that…but I'm just doing whatever comes, and thatâs what I want to keep doing. Everything else: Who cares?â
SEE IT: Edna Vazquez and No Passengers play the Dia de los Muertos celebration at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., on Thursday, Nov. 1. 6:30 pm. $5. All ages until 9 pm. Vazquez also plays the Piano Fort, 1715 SE Spokane St., with MidLo on Saturday, Nov. 3. 8 pm. $10 suggested donation. All ages.